Monday, January 26, 2009

The Great Movies: "My Darling Clementine"

My Darling Clementine
John Ford, 1946.

Westerns are a tough sell for me, brimming as they tend to do with an overblown iconography of the ranching industry. There are cattle drives, shootouts, and rugged little villages gradually succumbing to the bittersweet trappings of civilized life, and who gives a damn? And let us not even get started on their portrayal of such villains as Native Americans, Mexicans, and effete intellectuals.

So My Darling Clementine was fighting uphill against my genre prejudices, and got the wrong foot forward with the atrocious faux-Western music over its opening credits. For the first fifteen minutes or so, I found myself looking for flaws, formulating nasty little quips that I could drop in this review. Soon, though, I realized that I was going to have to concede that the movie was damned well crafted. The acting is terrific, the scenes are nicely composed, the black and white photography is exemplary, and the interior and exterior sets are picture-perfect.

After a half hour, I had to grudgingly admit to myself that I was actually enjoying the movie. The plot is simple as opera, but the characters are given a generous portion of depth and individual quirks. By the time of the final shootout, which is understated and not allowed to become the focus of the film, you actually care about the fates of the participants. It doesn't necessarily sell you on the idea of staged gunfights as a means of ensuring public order, but what the heck. It was a rougher world before we succumbed to the bittersweet trappings of civilized life. Or so we are told.

Plot: My Darling Clementine is based loosely on the historic Shootout at the OK Corral, an actual historic event about which I know nothing. In this version, a cowpoke assumes public office in order to pursue a personal vendetta, but he's so gosh-darn decent that this doesn't seem quite as bad as it sounds. The town baddy actually turns out to be pretty decent too -- you know, underneath his rough exterior and all -- and of course the hooker has a heart of gold. Naturally there is a Nice Girl in the plot as well, and I will not give away the big surprise of who ends up with her heart.

Visuals: Mostly magnificent, so feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph. ....what, still here? OK -- Details bug me: the little town, an exquisite little diorama of Old West violence and lawlessness, is built in the middle of a desolate, unsheltered wasteland with no water in sight, precisely the kind of place where no one would ever, ever, ever build a town. This is in order to get the stunning rock formations of Monument Valley (or someplace like it) in the background, but for someone who has studied too much geography it does raise the question of what the townsfolk DO for a living in all that desolation. Also: Musicians, who are surprisingly numerous, play their instruments in ways unrelated to the music on the soundtrack, which always bugs me. But these little things jump out all the more because otherwise the movie's images are so well staged, framed, and filmed.

Dialogue: A bit uneven. Many scenes are written with a lot of depth and a fair amount of wit. Others seem to be drawn from the Big Book of Stock Western Dialogue. My Darling Clementine transcends but never quite escapes the limitations of its genre.

Prognosis: If you like Westerns, you should love this one. If you don't like Westerns, you still might like this one. I'm living proof.

NEXT WEEK: Nashville


Yankee in England said...

Can I blame you for having the Clementine song stuck in my head now. I am going to wander around mumbling Oh my darling, oh my darling, all day!

Michael5000 said...

@Yank: People will think well of Mr.YinE.

DrSchnell said...

You might like another John Ford western, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", with John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, which takes as its subject not the good-guy-bad-guy, but rather the mythmaking that produces the idea of the bad guy-good guy shootout. If that makes any sense. Don Worster at KU had us watch it for his American West in the 20th Century class, and it remains my favorite western. The Searchers (another Ford/Waynefest) is also good, but this one is better, for my money. Some of Ford's westerns are fun because he uses John Wayne in roles that question the very nature of the archetypal John Wayne role, and I always get the impression that John Wayne wasn't in on it. But that may just be me reading to much into it, pilgrim.

Anonymous said...

DrS - Now I'll be hearing Gene Pitney for the rest of the day...

Chance said...

Ooh, Nashville. Talky and meandering. I can never decide whether Altman's a misunderstood genius or someone who throws so much at any particular wall that a few things always stick.

Anonymous said...

It would seem like snickering if I said that I suspected you would find yourself swayed by MDC. I won't say "I told you so," because I didn't, because I thought I'd better not.

Re: the little town in the middle of (yes) Monument Valley: absolutely essential to carry the idea of the film, I would argue. Still weird, though. My favorite oddment error is the huge suargo cactus right next to the boardwalk.

Some of the dialogue may be from The Big Book--or may have helped create some of the entries in the Book.

DrS: I agree--The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the bomb. My Little Brother5000 once gave me for Christmas a cheap old paperback titled "Indian Country," believing that he was mostly amusing me with a campy collection of Western stories with truly campy cover art. It was, in fact, a collection of the stories of Dorothy Johnson, among them "A Man Called Horse" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." It was the Best Christmas Ever.

Michael5000 said...

@Sis: You didn't need to tell me so. I knew what you would tell me, and watched the movie with your ghost sitting like a little cartoon conscience on my shoulder.

I noticed the cactus, too. Living with Mrs.5000 makes a guy very sensitive to symbolic misuse of the saguaro.